Innovation doesn’t usually come in merely a single product, but at its best, it is an underswell of technology that eventually changes an entire marketplace. Such is the case with the wheelchair industry, where although innovation is sometimes traceable to a single origin, often it’s more of a widespread current that bubbles to the surface and changes the mobility landscape.
This raises an intriguing question for many of us who follow wheelchair technology or are in the market for a new wheelchair within the next year: As we look at the mid-2014 world of wheelchair innovation, what are the behind-the-scenes trends that are potentially reshaping the mobility market as we speak?
In the power chair world, drive trains consist of electronic controls, motors and gearboxes. While there have been notable improvements in electronics and motors, the industry has used a fairly typical multistage gearbox for two decades. A multistage gearbox is compact and does a good job with multiple gears to allow balancing speed and torque. However, with power chair users demanding more than ever from their mobility technology, the industry is showing a move toward single-stage gearboxes. With multiple gears, efficiency can decrease, as can responsiveness, so a single-stage gearbox, with one large gear, may improve efficiency and responsiveness in some applications — all without increasing cost. You may begin to see more high-end power chairs carrying single-stage gearboxes over the next year.
Half of a Fork
Sometimes the seemingly smallest innovative trends are among the most meaningful. We’ve been seeing single-sided forks replace traditional forks for several years, and it’s now hitting virtually all higher-end manual and power chairs. Now, single-sided forks may not seem like a big innovation, but their impact — pun intended — shouldn’t be underestimated. Single-sided forks eliminate the outside protruding fork structure, so no more gouging walls — that is, the exposed caster bounces off surfaces instead of a fork digging in. Also, a single-sided fork narrows the caster area for increased maneuverability. No matter manual or power chairs, there’s an absolute trend toward single-sided forks.
Is Black the New Gray?
For those of us who’ve used wheelchairs for decades, we only knew of gray tires — and for good reason. Black tires historically used carbon, which leaves scuff marks and leaches black when wet (that’s why car tires leave black marks in your garage). However, wheelchair tire manufacturers have been doing a better and better job at engineering non-marring, non-leaching black tires. In fact, it’s really well-accomplished in the ultralight manual wheelchair market. Nevertheless, in the power mobility market, not all black tires are equal. In a rush to have the cool black look, some power chair tire manufacturers have used carbon-based black rubber drive tires, and they look cool until you come in from the rain and they leach all over your linoleum (black casters aren’t an issue because they’re typically some variation of a polyurethane or self-skinning foam, not carbon-based rubber). Therefore, while black tires are an undeniable trend, do a little research — especially with power chair drive tires — and ensure they’re truly non-marring and non-leaching.
Power mobility products have always operated on 24 volts, delivering a dramatically better balance of power and speed than a 12-volt system. However, with increased performance demands by consumers, 36-volt mobility products are starting to hit the market. The foremost advantage to 36 volts is power. If you place two identical power mobility products side-by-side on a steep hill, one 24 volts and the other 36 volts, the 36-volt version rockets up the hill, so the benefits are obvious. However, a 36-volt mobility product requires different electronics, motors, batteries and charger, so it’s a large design feat. Nevertheless, you’re going to start seeing 36-volt power mobility products entering the market, and the industry is curious as to how the ultra-high-performance products will be received by consumers.
Elevating to New Heights
Power seating made huge strides in recent years, from ergonomics to reliability to style. However, while tilt and recline has long been a priority, both manufacturers and consumers are increasingly focused on elevating seats as a tool of independence. The fact is, the ability to adjust your power chair’s transfer height, hang clothes, sit at high-top tables and so on create a list where a power elevating seat is a liberating technology. There’s a definite trend toward better elevating seating systems among manufacturers. Expect to see greater availability, albeit through new insurer coverage and affordable options.